Special education is the idea that young people who are disabled, who have difficulty learning, or who are just plain different, should be educated separately from others. Special education classes are familiar to us today as a normal part of the school system. One hundred years ago special education was an innovative school reform. Eugenicists were on the front lines of this reform. They helped to get special education classes into schools and they helped to define many of the early ideas about intellectual disability and learning difficulties that special educators depended on to understand their work. However, special education was not just about eugenics. Aside from eugenicists, school administrators also supported special classes that helped them to organize schools more efficiently by ability as well as by grade. Social reformers, who believed that education could help to improve the lives of marginalized people, thought that special education would help people with disabilities.
Eugenics and Special Education
In Canada, Toronto and Vancouver were two of the first cities to organize special classes for children with disabilities and learning difficulties (then called “auxiliary classes”), adding these classes in 1910 and 1911. In 1910 in Toronto, a pioneering medical doctor, women and children’s health expert, and social reformer named Helen MacMurchy played a vital role in getting special education classes for children then called “mentally defective”. (While terms such as “mentally defective,” “feeble-minded,” or “sub-normal,” to our ears sound harsh and offensive, they were the only terms that people a century ago had to talk about intellectual disabilities). MacMurchy believed that people with intellectual disabilities in particular, whom she called feeble-minded or mentally defective, were a menace to other Canadians. Her fears were founded on her firmly held beliefs that the feeble-minded caused social problems, such as pauperism, prostitution, and unemployment, that feeble-mindedness was a hereditary disease, and that feeble-minded people were having more children than the rest of the population. MacMurchy thought that special education classes could help in a bigger effort to control the feeble-minded.
MacMurchy wrote that “auxiliary classes” (special education classes) could be used as “clearing houses” for the training schools she wanted the government to build for feeble-minded people. The classes could be used to identify and train feeble-minded children while they waited to be transferred to training schools for the feeble-minded. In the training schools that eugenicists planned, feeble-minded people would be separated from the general population. The managers of the institutions could also monitor the feeble-minded so that they did not have children. (Later, eugenicists would advocate for sterilization to accomplish this aim.) MacMurchy also believed that the training schools, called “farm colonies,” would be safe places for people with disabilities, where they would be happy and other people would not take advantage of them. MacMurchy’s farm colonies were never built. But between approximately 1910 and 1945, multiple special education classes were opened in the schools of Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Brandon, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Saint John, Halifax, and elsewhere in Canada and the United States as well.
A century ago, urban school systems were growing very quickly and were becoming more diverse by the day as new groups of children, including children with disabilities and learning difficulties, entered the schools for the first time. In an attempt to make the schools more efficient and to reduce the number of grade failures, school administrators began to experiment with the idea of tracking classes by grade and ability. Like eugenicists, school administrators also believed that special education classes were a modern reform that could help them to meet the challenges they faced. Around the same time, and additional group – reformers who worried about the negative influences of city-living, industrialization, and poverty on young people’s learning abilities – turned to special education classes as well, as a way to lessen the negative impact of these influences on young people.
What young people learned in special education classes
Special education classes for so-called mentally defective or feeble-minded young people, one hundred or ninety years ago, offered a type of education that was different from what children in the “regular” grades received. The classes often taught children “manual training” exercises. These exercises involved learning how to cut wood, nail boards, sew thread, weave baskets, and other similar skills. Children in special education classes also did a lot of other hands-on learning. They sang songs, modelled with clay, played store, and danced. They also learned basic academic skills: how to read, spell, write, and do addition and subtraction. Older special education students attended schools that were supposed to prepare them for specific jobs. In special schools for adolescent sub-normals, boys learned how to cut hair, mop floors, do basic farming, and repair cars. Girls learned how to cook, clean, sew, and do laundry. Boys and girls went to separate schools.
IQ testing expands special education
In the 1920s, the people who had developed intelligence quotient (IQ) tests during World War I helped to create more demand for special education by arguing that people with lower IQs needed a different education than people with “normal” or higher IQs. The IQ testers also developed new ideas about why sub-normal children and adolescents learned differently than other people. They said that sub-normal learners were best suited to learning to work with their hands and that they would eventually find blue-collar jobs. The IQ testers also thought that white-collar jobs were more difficult than blue-collar jobs, and that these jobs should go to people with higher IQs. IQ tests, however, were heavily biased – a lot easier for middle-class Anglo-Saxon children to score well on because the tests asked questions about things these children were more likely to know about.
Eugenics in special education declines
By the 1930s, eugenics had a lot less influence over special education than it did in the 1920s or 1910s. The eugenicists had largely failed to get the things they wanted out of special education, such as farm colonies. They moved away from special education and towards measures such as sterilization. At the same time, teachers – many of them women – were claiming special education for their own. In the majority, teachers did not think about children with disabilities as a “menace” (although some did). Instead, they thought that special education was the best way for teachers to help children with disabilities and learning difficulties to meet their full potential, even if that potential was limited.
Conclusion: The forgotten legacy of eugenics in special education
After about 1940 or 1950, eugenics had relatively little influence on special education. Today, eugenics as a part of special education is largely forgotten. However, the legacy of eugenics continues to shape special education in the twenty-first century. The view promoted initially by eugenicists that it is appropriate, or even necessary, to separate children with disabilities from other children is still common in public education today. At the same time, the idea that the learning difficulties that children with disabilities experience are caused by these children’s natural deficiencies – that they are not caused by a school system that is not well adapted to the needs of many different children – is too often an accepted part of schooling as well. In today’s context of inclusion for exceptional children, the legacy of eugenics and exclusion still lingers.
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